Mr. Simpson’s testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence follows a pattern by fans of the dossier commissioned by Fusion and written by former British spy Christopher Steele.
Some committee Democrats have credited Mr. Steele with first disclosing events that actually had been reported previously in the open press. One network news site applauded him for disclosing that Donald Trump looked at possible real-estate deals in Russia. Yet Mr. Trump’s failed attempts to build a hotel in Russia over three decades have been chronicled in the press and by the president himself.
The committee released a transcript of Mr. Simpson’s Nov. 14 testimony on Friday. The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid Mr. Steele, through Fusion, beginning in June 2016, to investigate then-candidate and now President Trump and his Russia ties. It was about the same time when Democrats disclosed that Russian agents had interfered in the 2016 election by hacking their computers and stealing data.
Republicans say the dossier, which accuses Trump people of numerous felonies, is filled with salacious lies and inaccuracies. The FBI has not confirmed Mr. Steele’s core charges of Trump collusion. Two Republican senators have asked the Justice Department to investigate Mr. Steele for allegedly misleading the FBI with whom he worked to start a criminal probe.
Mr. Simpson’s November testimony weaves a large net of conspiracy around Mr. Trump, his people and shady Russian figures. More broadly, he said that Russians have infiltrated “some religious groups,” secession movements in Texas and California and the National Rifle Association.
“You know, it’s a big operation,” he testified.
Founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters, Fusion is a private opposition-research firm that is a font of anti-Trump tips fed to the Washington press corps. He testified that “numerous things” have been substantiated.
Mr. Simpson was asked how he corroborated Mr. Steele’s series of charges. He gave two examples. The examples did not outright prove illegal conduct by Trump associates. Instead, they were comprised of Mr. Steele’s sources expressing knowledge in the dossier of a known organization and a Russian public official.
Firstly, Mr. Simpson goes to bat for what appears to be one of the most far-fetched assertions by Mr. Steele. He accused Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, of secretly traveling to Prague in August 2016 to meet with aides to President Vladimir Putin. There, they supposedly conspired to cover up the Russian hacking.
Mr. Cohen has denied he ever traveled to Prague and showed his passport to prove it. There has been no public or FBI confirmation that such a mission took place. Mr. Cohen on Jan. 9 filed a libel suit against Fusion GPS.
“I couldn’t find anything that was clearly made up,” he told the House committee. “They had accurate names and events that, while not totally secret, were pretty obscure that turned out to be on target. We — you know, they identified - one memo identified a Russian guy who worked for an NGO called Rossotrudnichestvo, which is — you know, I didn’t know it at the time, but I was able to learn from looking at it that the FBI considers that to be a front for the SVR [Russian foreign intelligence]. So, you know, either the people were extremely knowledgeable about a lot of obscure intelligence stuff or, you know, they — what they’re saying had some credibility.”
To Mr. Simpson, the fact Mr. Steele’s source — the ex-spy described the person as a “Kremlin insider”— knew of Rossotrudnichestvo’s ties to Russian intelligence was evidence of the source’s bona fides and thus a Trump conspiracy.
But the group’s connections were well known publicly. In 2012-13, there were stories, including in the Washington Post, that FBI counter-intelligence suspected Rossotrudnichestvo agents of trying to recruit Americans as informants. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported the same elements in a June 2017 story days before Mr. Steele began writing the first dossier memo.
Mr. Simpson‘ second example of dossier accuracy was the alleged role of a senior Russian insider, Sergei Ivanov.
Mr. Steele wrote of second-hand information. An “official close to” Mr. Ivanov quoted him as saying that Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page met with another Putin aide to discuss obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton.
(Mr. Page has said repeatedly he never meet with the aide during a July 2016 trip to Moscow to deliver a public speech. He has filed a libel suit.)
Mr. Ivanov was a well-known and along-time ally of Mr. Putin. They served together in the old KGB internal intelligence agency. Mr. Ivanov went on to hold a number of inner-circle posts, including as chief of Mr. Putin’s administrative staff. Mr. Putin fired the 63-year-old in August 2016 in what the local press said was a staff shakeup to bring in a new team of younger, totally loyal, bureaucrats.
In addition to the allegation against Mr. Page, Mr. Steele also said Mr. Ivanov had some role in overseeing the computer hacking. Both the Page and Ivanov charges remain unverified publicly, though U.S. intelligence concluded that the hacking was ordered at the highest levels in Moscow.
Mr. Simpson argued that the Steele source’s knowledge of Mr. Ivanov’s unproven roles gave credence to collusion charges and to Mr. Page’s purported illegal conduct.
“For example, in one report they described how the Kremlin’s election operation was being run by Sergei Ivanov, who is the head of the presidential administration, and, you know, gave a number of details about that. That was news to me.
“I thought if you were going to run an intelligence operation against the United States, you’d use the SVR. They’d be in charge. As I dug into some of the more obscure academic work on how the Kremlin operates by some of the more distinguished scholars of the subject, I found that Ivanov is, in fact, or was at the time, in fact, the head of a sort of internal kind of White House plumber’s operation for the Kremlin and that he seemed to have the kind of duties that were being described in this memo
“So either this person was familiar with some fairly obscure research or they knew what they were talking about. So that’s the kind of work you can do. You can do a lot of that work. And that’s why I think I can give a much more definitive answer on whether anything’s been disproved, because, generally speaking, when you’re evaluating things, you’re looking for things that someone clearly made up.”
In August testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Simpson also cited the Ivanov mention as bolstering the dossier.
The Steele source’s description of Mr. Ivanov matched what was in the public record.
“So in the course of saying who is this Ivanov guy, you know, we looked at Ivanov and found journal articles and other public information about his long history of intelligence,” Mr. Simpson said. “He’s a veteran of the FSB his long history with Vladimir Putin, and his role atop this internal operation.”
Whether Mr. Ivanov, one of Mr. Putin’s most public aides, would play a role in intelligence seems unremarkable. Besides being a KGB veteran and former defense minister, he sat on the Kremlin security council that included both the heads of internal intelligence, the FSB, and foreign intelligence, the SVR.
By early August 2016, when Mr. Steele wrote his first memo mentioning Ivanov, it was publicly known for weeks that Russian intelligence had hacked Democratic computers.
The cyber security firm CrowdStrike issued a June 14 report identifying two Russian intelligence units as the culprits. On July 22, Wikileaks began releasing thousands of stolen emails. Analysts began concluding the emails must have come from Russians.
“What we did do is look at names and places and people and whether they matched up with information we could get elsewhere,” he said. “And all of that, as far as it went, checked out. I haven’t seen anything that has contradicted anything in the memos to date, at least not that I can think of.”
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have used the dossier in an attempt to bring down President Trump. In the process, they have given the dossier credit for non-existent scoops.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat, gave Mr. Steele praise for reporting in October that the state-owned Rosneft oil giant planned to sell a 19 percent stake to private bidders. The sale happened in December.
But the Kremlin had announced the sale and 19 percent figure months earlier in July. It was public knowledge.
A Democrat asserted that two public hearing witnesses confirmed Mr. Steele’s allegation that Mr. Trump frolicked with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013. In fact, the witnesses offered no such confirmation.
Mr. Steele wrote, “Regarding TRUMP’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. TRUMP’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St Petersburg as well as Moscow.”
Again, those biographical facts have been public for years. There is a 2008 photo online showing a Trump visit where he was hunting for a hotel deal.
He has made about on average one trip to Russia a decade.
If anything, failed deals would seem to show he has no inside track with the Kremlin.
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